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This item is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.

'There is something sinister about a culture that judges first and tries to understand later.'
                                                  The Reverend Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney

Beyond headlines and tag lines ('First Among Idiots' and 'The Ayatollah of Canterbury' among them), what struck me was the sustained virulence of the initial assault on Rowan Williams. As head of the established church, on 7 February he delivered the foundation lecture in a series of six at the Royal Courts of Justice on the subject, 'Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective'. The themes he explored 'should not have been raised' by a person in his position, critics said.

Few of them read the lecture. The man is an intellectual: to such people no quarter is given, not even by soundbite Christians, the more generous of whom described his words as 'unfortunate'. Some claimed to have found them 'too hard to understand', but they had violent opinions nonetheless. Those who turned to the actual text - lucid, brilliant and challenging as Dr Williams normally is - will remain perplexed at the dishonesty of the response, and how slowly relief came.

Martin Amis, speaking on the Andrew Marr Show (BBC 1) on 10 February, reflected on the 'state of the discourse when tabloids all insist that [the Archbishop] is calling for sharia law when he's very far from doing that'. And not only the tabloids. Though no friend of the Anglican or Muslim faiths, Amis went further, commenting on the reductive irresponsibility of the news media at large in relation to their increasing power: 'they are mullahs, are iron mullahs, are Abu Hamzas, and they're stirring it up'. The roasting of Dr Williams (one programme cheerfully compared his fate to Cranmer's) should be intolerable; they present it as entertainment.

It is Dr Williams's misfortune that he is a subtle, thoughtful and trusting man. He is Christian in his expectations of people of good will; one hopes he will prove Christian in steadfastness and stamina. Islamophobia is rife. Inter-cultural dialogue is difficult. He intended to re-open it in a key area: 'if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of "deconstruction" of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment'. A forlorn hope: crude oppositions and mythologies did not spare him.

Dr Williams's thought is unified. His subtlety and generosity remind us of Richard Hooker's, whose Ecclesiastical Polity at the troubled end of the sixteenth century helped hold together a fragmenting communion. Would that Dr Williams had readers equal to his writing, and a healable communion. He does not fly kites but builds intellectual and spiritual structures. For me a key moment in this lecture came when he spoke of the law in terms which relate to dominance and subjection in the discourses of literature.

I have argued recently in a discussion of the moral back ground to legislation about incitement to religious hatred that any crime involving religious offence has to be thought about in terms of its tendency to create or reinforce a position in which a religious person or group could be gravely disadvantaged in regard to access to speaking in public in their own right: offence needs to be connected to issues of power and status, so that a powerful individual or group making derogatory or defamatory statements about a disadvantaged minority might be thought to be increasing that disadvantage. The point I am making here is similar. If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour - for protest against certain unforeseen professional requirements, for instance, which would compromise religious discipline or belief - it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process (or indeed to receive their communication), and so, on at least one kind of legal theory (expounded recently, for example, by R.A. Duff), fails in one of its purposes.

Such writing does not require paraphrase. It does require attention and reflection of a concentrated kind. What it says is vital for the health of our wider cultures.

As I was reflecting on these issues, I received a letter in response to a report in PNR 178 entitled 'Normando Hernández González - imprisoned Cuban journalist'. The reader objected to this and similar reports in the literary press, on the grounds of their incompleteness: context was missing and our editorial perspectives in publishing were narrow and narrowing.

The sources for information on Hernández Gonzáles - PEN in particular - were less nuanced than they might have been. The PEN website has later information, including the news that the writer is safe in hospital receiving medical care, so the campaign to release him on health grounds was justified. Costa Rica intervened on his behalf. Yet the story of his detention is more complex than we reported. Poetry played no part in it. The charges related to journalism, in particular his contributions to a Miami-based website dedicated to overthrowing the Cuban system, and to Radio Martí which broadcasts to Cuba. Radio Marti, our correspondent says, recently urged Cuban military personnel to desert, promising them commissions in a future Cuban army under American patronage. Collusion with the enemy, whether it is the riven Cuban exile movement or the American State Department, is punishable under any régime; freedom of speech can shade into sedition.

We reported that a number of organisations appealed for his release. It seems that the Camagüey College of Independent Journalists was founded by the writer himself, included about ten members, and met at his mother's house. The Cuban Foundation for Human Rights has some two dozen members and, judging from its website, is close to the Roman Catholic church, campaigning against abortions in the Cuban health service.

Our reader raises questions about factual truth and political motive (our own included). He says 'disinterested persons inside the country' are the only trustworthy source, but provides no hint on how to locate them. One must mistrusts exile websites and the American State Department, but also Cuban information services. Problems of authentication are disabling. What can we say with certainty? Nothing, in fact. Are we to stay silent if we are not sure that what we spy in the shadows is an act of violence?

When we report perceived if unprovable wrongs in Cuba, are we applying absolutist moral judgements which we don't apply elsewhere? Should we keep our counsel because our information is partial in both senses? 'In the highly politicised situation that obtains,' our correspondent says, 'I feel that attacks on Cuba cannot help but be support for the American campaign against the country, the aims of which are horrific, though lots of poets and artists would no doubt be allowed to do anything they wanted un-interfered-with.'

This, and the Archbishop's travails, so different in scale, put me in mind of the late 1940s when rumours of the Gulag began to solidify into verifiable fact. Octavio Paz wrote about the Soviet labour camps for Victoria Ocampo's Buenos Aires magazine Sur. Pablo Neruda led a campaign to vilify him: he had sold out; by making the truth public he was 'siding with the Americans'.

Do we aid our foes by acknowledging the truth? And if we don't acknowledge it, what happens to us? Repression in Cuba is not comparable in scale to the Gulag. Nor are things today as bad as they were earlier in the revolution. But the régime's repressive paranoia, reflecting the paranoias of its foes, occasions excesses. As readers and writers, as citizens, there are times - as the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno declared in 1937 - when to be silent is to lie. In the case of Hernández González, perhaps we knew too little to speak with authority. But next time? And the time after? We will look with a more exigent eye.

This item is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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